Is the Religious Right Privileged?

Fair warning: This will be an entire column about a single paragraph.

The paragraph’s author is Adam Serwer, a writer for The Atlantic, weighing in on the complicated, sometimes baffling debate on the right about the relationship between religious conservatives and libertarianism … or maybe the relationship between religious conservatives and Donald Trump … or maybe the relationship between religious conservatives and the liberal democratic order.

I think the debate is mostly about the first two issues, with the “post-liberal” flirtations of some conservative intellectuals just a tug at the extreme. Serwer, like many critics of the Trump-era right, thinks otherwise, and in an Atlantic essay he argues at length that religious conservatives are increasingly illiberal and authoritarian in their rejection of the secular and socially liberal destination where American democracy is heading. And then, taking specific exception to my suggestion that some possible trajectories for the liberal order might justify an openness to “post-liberal” alternatives, he writes as follows:

Black Americans did not abandon liberal democracy because of slavery, Jim Crow, and the systematic destruction of whatever wealth they managed to accumulate; instead they took up arms in two world wars to defend it. Japanese Americans did not reject liberal democracy because of internment or the racist humiliation of Asian exclusion; they risked life and limb to preserve it. Latinos did not abandon liberal democracy because of “Operation Wetback,” or Proposition 187, or because of a man who won a presidential election on the strength of his hostility toward Latino immigrants. Gay, lesbian, and trans Americans did not abandon liberal democracy over decades of discrimination and abandonment in the face of an epidemic. This is, in part, because doing so would be tantamount to giving the state permission to destroy them, a thought so foreign to these defenders of the supposedly endangered religious right that the possibility has not even occurred to them. But it is also because of a peculiar irony of American history: The American creed has no more devoted adherents than those who have been historically denied its promises, and no more fair-weather friends than those who have taken them for granted.

This is powerful stuff — the last line, in particular — whose power lies in two arguments, two lines of thinking, that it eloquently distills. The first argument is a broad historical defense of the American experiment, resonant with patriots of all persuasions, which emphasizes the scope that our system gives for the slow, hard work of moral improvement, political empowerment and the correction of even the most grievous sins and errors.

America was born imperfect and remains so, in this story, but it is a place where the most oppressed and disfavored people need never despair of their future, need never abandon the promise of the founding, because the arc of our national story can always, with enough activist zeal and procedural perseverance, be bent toward justice.

Then the second argument, which takes over at the end, is about how we should understand the current correlations of forces in our politics. Here Serwer is stating with particular force something that most liberals seem to believe: That populism in all its forms, but maybe religious conservatism especially, is best understood as the illiberal rage of the formerly privileged, the longtime white-male-Christian winners of our history, at discovering that under conditions of equality they don’t get to be the rulers anymore.

I want to complicate the first argument, and challenge the second one. The complication has to do with the history of black emancipation and black politics; the challenge has to do with the actual composition of the religious right and the history of liberalism’s relationship to Christianity.

On the first point, it’s true that black America has never formed an illiberal bloc in American politics, and true as well that the dominant, so far victorious strain in African-American activism and political thought is represented by the fulfill-the-founding patriotism that binds Frederick Douglass and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

But it is not really true that the crucial turning point in the African-American relationship to America, the abolition of chattel slavery, was accomplished by activists working painstakingly within a system of liberal constitutionalism.

It is possible that it could have been, and that the Civil War was an avoidable tragedy; this was the pious consensus of 50 years ago, which the current occupant of the White House still expresses — usually to progressive derision.

But that derision has a point: In the world as it was, slavery was abolished only because of the interaction between Southern paranoia, ambition and vainglory and Northern abolitionists who regarded the constitutional order as a “compact with hell” — an interaction that led first to political violence, then a breakdown of the constitutional order and then a civil war in which a cautious campaign to save the union became a providentialist war to crush the South. A war that was, relative to the status quo ante, a good and necessary thing — but also a stark reminder that our system has advanced morally through effective re-foundings as well as liberal reforms, and that some moral-religious-cultural chasms can be closed only by extra-constitutional events.

Nothing so extra-constitutional has happened in our politics since. But the story of the African-American relationship to liberalism after the Civil War is also a little more complicated than Serwer’s paragraph suggests. As an undercurrent, at least, the black political tradition in America has included many “post-liberal” forays and flirtations, sharpest in periods of apparent political breakdown, that encompass everything from the Communist affiliations of many black intellectuals in the 1930s to the Black Panther Party, the Nation of Islam and other black nationalist movements in the civil rights era. (Elements of these traditions are visible around the edges of contemporary African-American intellects as different as Clarence Thomas and Ta-Nehisi Coates.)

For a cleareyed take on the appeal of these tendencies, I recommend Serwer’s own 2018 essay on the sympathy that even the odious Louis Farrakhan can still inspire. But really anyone with an imagination should be able understand the past attraction of Communism or racial separatism or back-to-Africanism to black Americans. If you live under a system that claims to have high ideals but seems ineradicably opposed to your own people’s flourishing, the desire for idealistic reform within the system has to coexist with an openness to more radical possibilities. And defenders of the system should accept that openness, at least in certain cases, because serious discontents with the liberal order can also spur the changes necessary to keep it.

Which takes us from race to religion, from Serwer’s defense of America’s promise to his attack on today’s religious conservatives. There is plenty in today’s religious right to criticize, especially on issues of race. But the idea that the religious-conservative coalition just represents the former big winners of American history, resentful of their lost privilege and yet even now so secure within it that they can’t imagine being on the receiving end of state oppression, is … not really an accurate description.

In fact, the religious right consists of an alliance of several groups that, without experiencing anything like the oppression visited on black Americans, have consistently occupied lower rungs in the American social hierarchy. Today’s evangelicalism is a complicated mix, but it is heavily descended from Bible Belt, prairie and Sun Belt folkways that were often poor and marginalized and rarely close to the corridors of power. Its allies in pro-life, pro-family politics include Orthodox Jews, whose history is not exactly one of power; Mormons, who were harried westward by a brutal persecution and then forced to rewrite their doctrines by state power; and conservative Roman Catholics, about whose difficult relationship to liberalism I will say more in a moment. And all of these groups are embedded in global religious communities in which persecution is as common as privilege — which if anything probably leads them to worry too much about what a hostile government might do to them, not to fail to imagine such oppression.

All of these groups have their own sins to answer for (my own Catholic Church’s scandal being particularly salient these days), and some of the stances religious conservatives take in their struggle with secular liberalism are clearly influenced for the worse by the racism that has pervaded every white religious tradition in America.

But while that secular liberalism, in its meritocratic-elite form, may present itself as a vehicle for long-suffering minorities to finally grasp power, in many ways it is also a peculiar post-Protestant extension of the old WASP ascendancy — shorn of that ascendancy’s piety and sense of duty, but still at war with fundamentalists on one flank and Catholics on the other, still determined (to borrow an image from National Review’s Michael Brendan Dougherty) to impose the current doctrines of Episcopalians on the Baptists and the Papists.

And for serious Papists, especially, the longer arc of liberalism has to look a bit dubious at the moment. Whether it descends through John Locke or Voltaire, the liberal order has often tended to define itself against the Catholic Church, and in the European context to answer ancien-régime cruelties with anti-Catholic persecutions, expropriations and terrors all its own.

In America that anticlericalism was milder, and with Catholic assimilation and Catholic patriotism (a less remarkable analogue to the African-American patriotism Serwer describes) there was a promise that it would eventually disappear entirely.

But from the perspective of conservative Catholicism — which I do not ask you to share, only to inhabit for a moment — the story of the last 50 years is very different.

Religiously, liberal individualism has become a solvent for the faith, in the United States as well as Europe. Politically, liberalism has imposed via the judiciary, the least democratic branch, a constitutional right to abortion, a form of lethal violence that the church opposes for the same reasons it opposes infanticide — and after 50 years of small-d democratic activism by pro-lifers, the pro-choice side seems to be hardening into a view that such activism is as un-American as racism. Legally, elite liberalism is increasingly embracing arguments that would make it difficult or impossible for the church to operate hospitals and adoption agencies today, and perhaps colleges and grammar schools tomorrow. And in its internal life, beneath the post-Protestant tendency I’ve just described, progressive politics is also nurturing a fashionable occultism, whose rituals may be practiced somewhat ironically or performatively but whose anti-Catholicism seems quite sincere.

If you have a sense of Catholicism’s history that’s deeper than the last 50 years, these turns are not, as Serwer suggests, the first time that a privileged church full of privileged white people has had to deal with defeat or disappointment. Rather, they threaten the return of longstanding tendency in modern secular polities — an institutionalized anti-Catholicism that effectively oppresses the church even if it stops short of persecuting it, a form of liberalism that is (if you will) integrally opposed to my religion’s flourishing.

I am not a post-liberal and I do not think that such a return to full 19th-century anticlericalism inevitable or even likely — which is one reason among many that I doubt the bargain many religious conservatives have made with Donald Trump. I think that stalemate and stagnation are more powerful forces in our era than the slippery slope or the anti-Catholic ratchet, and that the echoes of prior crises in our current moment are just an aging civilization playing its greatest hits. (Indeed, I’m so committed to this thesis that my next book will propound it.)

But because I am inside conservative Catholicism I can see very well where the (narrow) interest in ideas like “integralism” and the (much larger) sympathy for populist rebellions is coming from. And because I would prefer that political liberalism turn away from the trajectory that is inspiring both integralism and Trumpism, I want liberals — liberals like Serwer, perhaps liberals like you, reader — to embrace a historical perspective that is wider and more complicated than a partisan story about privileged white Christians whining because they’ve never lost anything before.

The American right

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